Family Fun at Franconia Sculpture Park

In the many times I drove by, I never once seriously considered stopping. From what I could tell from the highway, it was all mountains of twisted metal, just junk. I hardly gave the Franconia Sculpture Park in St. Croix Falls a second thought.

Last weekend I gave it more than a thought. My family gave it an hour (or more) of our afternoon on the drive home from hiking in Taylors Falls, and my only regret is that we didn’t stop sooner!

First of all, this is not junk. This is art. There’s incredible detail and craftsmanship to these sculptures, and in some, a lesson. (Like the Vietnamese pedicab in “All that is Solid Melts Into Air (or, Making Ourselves at Home in This Modern World)” by Hong-An Truong of Brooklyn, New York.) This was the only sculpture that actually had sound, too, with speakers beneath the wood. The loudspeakers espouse the ideologies and language of the French Colonial Empire, American military, and Vietnamese communist government.

Bike and ocean backdrop

True artists contribute to this open air gallery. That’s evident when you begin walking around. I don’t “get” every sculpture I see, but I can respect the care and dedication that went into creating these larger-than-life pieces. Not just anyone can contribute to the landscape. There’s a well-respected system.

According to their website, “Through the artist residency program, Franconia awards competitive fellowships and internships to up to 40 emerging and mid-career visual artists each year, supporting the creation and exhibition of large-scale sculpture.”

There’s a house on the grounds where the resident artists live. I was proud that—right here in Minnesota—we’re allowing artists from around the country (some even from other countries) to follow their passion and create some really incredible pieces to display.  

Second of all, there are more than just a few sculptures at the park; there are 30 acres of sculptures (some even in the woods, including smaller-scale sculptures nailed to trees and set upon logs).

And last—but definitely not least—the park is free and incredibly kid-friendly. Dogs are welcome, too. The ever-changing sculptures are created with the intent of visitors touching, feeling, even climbing on them. It’s a very playful experience, complete with two whimsical playground structures, reminiscent of something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (or maybe Whoville, just without the Grinch).

It was a beautiful afternoon and we all had a great time admiring the artwork, reading about the artists and where they were from, and letting the kids be kids. Every now and then it’s nice to not to have to tell your kids, “Don’t touch that. Don’t climb on that. Don’t do that. Come back here” and allow them to run around and explore. There was a lot of running around, and a lot of exploring that day. It was pretty obvious which sculptures were just to look at, and which ones encouraged interaction. (For example, Heather Hart’s “The Northern Oracle” rooftop piece was practically begging to have people climb its structurally sound, low-to-the-ground roof.)

Our family had a very memorable experience. I would recommend this to anyone with or without kids, with or without an appreciation for art (you’ll leave with an impression, I’ll just put it that way), with some time to kill on a nice morning, afternoon, or evening. I think it would also be a fun place to bring out-of-town visitors, since it’s so unique. Or even a first date.

And in true “Minnesota nice” fashion, there’s a refrigerator next to the visitor’s center with cold bottled water and freezies, and a little pay box beside it, relying on the good ol’ honor system. (In case you want a cold treat on a hot day.) How often do you see hospitality like that?

Franconia is worth the drive itself, but if you’re already planning a day trip to Taylors Falls, stop by on your way to or from the state park. Now that we’ve discovered this little gem, I know we’ll be back.

The sculpture park is located on the corners of Highways 8 and 95—before you reach the St. Croix River. It’s open from dawn to dusk seven days a week, 365 days a year. There is no fee to see the sculptures, but donations are accepted.

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